Medals tarnish, records are broken, and younger athletes fill shoes left behind by legends. The career lifespan for most athletes is short; and, post-retirement, many fade from the spotlight for a life of normality. For Tegla Loroupe, our 2014 Billie Jean King Contribution Award winner, the accomplishments and accolades earned from a storied running career weren’t enough to fulfill the native Kenyan. After winning three world half-marathon championships and setting two marathon world records, Loroupe has lived a life dedicated to promoting world peace through sport.
Loroupe was born in Kenya to a father with four wives. One of 24 children, she spent her childhood working the African fields, tending to cattle and running barefoot to school every morning. When she began to beat her male classmates in shorter races, Loroupe decided to pursue her running talents, an endeavor supported only by her mother. She went on to become the first Kenyan to win the New York City Marathon, a two-time winner of the Paris Half Marathon, a two-time Goodwill Games gold medalist in the 10,000 meters and a two-time Berlin Marathon champion. Always running barefoot, Loroupe became a Kenyan national hero and the idol of many around the world.
But Loroupe wouldn’t stop at first-place finishes. In 2003 with her running prize money, she founded the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving peace building, livelihoods and resilience of poor populations affected by and vulnerable to conflict and civil unrest. That same year, the Foundation established an annual series of Peace Marathons, in which prime ministers, ambassadors and government officials run with warriors and nomadic groups in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan to bring peace to the area plagued by raiding warriors from battling tribes. In 2010, the Kenyan Government lauded her achievements, as hundreds of warriors had laid down their weapons. Through her Foundation, Loroupe established a school, the Tegla Loroupe Peace Academy, an orphanage for children affected by violence from the region of Kapenguria, a high-mountain town in northwest Kenya.
In 2006, Loroupe was named a United Nations Ambassador and is an international sports ambassador for the International Athletics Associations Federation and UNICEF. That same year, with Oxfam, she traveled with actors George Clooney and Don Cheadle, as well as speedskater Joey Cheek, to Beijing, Cairo and New York on a diplomatic mission to bring an end to the violence in Darfur.
The power of Loroupe’s athletic accomplishments and the impact of her global contributions are only magnified by her heritage as a Kenyan woman, someone who was expected from birth to marry and bear children, not become a world-known ambassador for sport and peace. And as African children, both boys and girls, both runners and not, grow up in a more peaceful, educated society, they can thank Loroupe for her vision, influence and contributions.
The Billie Jean King Contribution Award is presented to an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the development and advancement of women’s sports in general and to the Women’s Sports Foundation specifically and/or who has, through personal achievements or influence, inspired girls and women to become more responsible in their own health through sport, fitness or physical activity.
The award is earned by the demonstration of a continuing, lasting commitment and dedication to the growth of sports, fitness and physical activity for women and girls. The award, given since 1980, is presented each year at the Annual Salute to Women in Sports.